The benefits of a Balanced Day

We know the CBE can’t continue to operate as it has. The budget imbalance is growing, and the status quo isn’t working. We need to think about a range of things differently. Parents are also looking at school fees that continue to edge upwards.

Things have to change.

What changes could be made to improve student learning and help the budget?

I’d like to suggest that how we organize school days could help.

In Ontario, most schools have moved to a provincially-mandated Balanced Day schedule. This is where students start school, have two hours of instruction, followed by a 40 minute break (20 minutes for eating, and 20 minutes for outdoor play). They then have another 2 hours of instruction, then a similar 40 minute break. After the second break comes another 2 hours of instruction. The breaks ensure the day is broken into equal and productive work blocks.

Compare the two sets of schedules:

Ontario balanced day scenario:

balanced day hours

emh hours

This is an example of a Calgary elementary school schedule. There is a morning recess at 10:15, not listed, and no afternoon recess. Those were cut out many years ago at most schools. The result is an afternoon block from 12:27 to 2:53 p.m. with no break. Where as in the morning, when the kids are probably mostly on task, they break after less than 90 minutes. The morning is broken up with recess, while the afternoon time lags without a break.

Balanced day better reflects how kids should eat (smaller, more frequent meals) and cuts down on the costly transition time – putting on coats and boots. As well, many parents will tell you that when it`s very cold out, a full 40 minutes of outside play time is too much.

There have been a number of studies that show the benefits of balanced day on learning.

So, how could this impact the CBE? It could change the way the organization thinks about lunch and lunch room supervision – and the fees that go with it.

CBE receives $4.6 million in fees. Parents pay between $250 and $270 for lunch room supervision for the year, which works out to about $1.50 per day. There is an entire bureaucracy created to manage fees. There are six fee clerks and one supervisor to collect these fees. Non Payers over the threshold of $15 are sent to a collection agency, which then takes 30 per cent of anything recovered. (There is a moral question about using collection agencies for collecting fees, but that is a topic for another post.)

The budget document, on page 80, says that fees only cover 75 per cent of the cost of the program, the rest is paid for out of school funds. (ie, instructional grants.) Up to 6.7 per cent of what is paid by parents is diverted to cover admin costs. ($16.78 per student.)

For the 2012-13 school year, 88 per cent of the $21.7 million in assessed fees were paid. But another table shows 17.4 per cent of students, more than 8,000, were either granted waivers, or did not pay for lunch room supervision.

Lunchroom supervisors are paid between $18.68 and $23.02 per hour, and work about 10 hours per week. (I took this from a recent job posting.)  Now, remember, that you only need them for one of those hours, and you realize that there is a lot of wasted money.

How much money We don’t really know. There isn’t a line item in the budget to explain it. Some schools, like middle schools, get teachers to supervise over the lunch hour because they only have a couple of grade 5-6 classes. In my kids’ elementary schools, kids are bunched in groups of 50 plus. They sit on the floor to eat. It’s not ideal.

Moving to a balanced day could mean that the lunch room supervision staff actually work the two hours they are paid for. Or it could mean schools move to a system where teachers pick up the supervision duties – saving the cost of the extra staff.

I know many of you would say that the teacher’s union would never go for that. In our Ontario school board there were 2 PD days all year. That’s it. Teachers got prep time during the day, when the kids were with the music teacher, PE teacher or  the teacher-librarian. (They actually have those kinds of teachers out there.) I’d argue that is more productive use of prep time, than a full workshop every third or fourth Friday.

Maybe you throw it all together for discussion, talk to teachers and find a way to make lunch work for everyone – kids, teachers, parents and the cash-strapped school boards.

Hey, by-election candidates. Care to weigh in? Parents, what do you think?






Paris is risky? How about high school football

On the weekend, I commented for this Jeremy Nolais Metro story about the CBE potentially cancelling portions of high school trips to Europe because of the threat of terrorism.

I was happy the CBE is taking precautions, and managing risk. However, I can’t see that going to Paris, or flying into the Paris airport, is any more risky than playing high school football.

I’d love someone at the CBE to start talking about the risks and costs associated with offering a high school football program.

The statistics are stunning. In US studies, football injuries are second only to cycling in volume and severity. The rates of catastrophic spinal cord injury is 0.7 in 100,000 in high school and 2.66 at college.  That means the player does not recover. And death?  The rate is 0.4 in 100,000. The report mentions catastrophic brain injuries, and speaks to five cases in 2012, but does not provide a frequency rate.

That study doesn’t talk at all about garden variety concussions, the types that we now know can have devastating long-term impacts on a person’s life. The NFL commissioned a study of High School football in the US and found a rate of 11.3 concussions per 10,000 “athletic exposures.” That means every practice or game – and it’s almost twice the level of college football players.

And then, read this Globe and Mail story. It points to a study that shows football players don’t even need to be concussed to lose brain function. The constant low-level impacts of the game take a toll.

Don’t forget that tragedy has already hit the CBE’s football program.  In 2004, Tyler Zeer, a Gr. 11 student at Bowness High School died after a routine hit at a practice.

I would have thought there would have been some discussion about the future of football when results were known from this study at Ernest Manning High School. All players wore sensors in their helmets which measured the force of impact of hits. They used the data from the sensor to determine when a hit was hard enough to cause a concussion. When it happened, sports medicine personnel could assess the player. They found 15 of those hits through part of the season. That figure is more than the entire league reported in concussions for the whole season.

Ok, so we know it’s a risky sport.

What are the rewards? How does high school football benefit learning?

In the early 90s, I covered high school football for the Calgary Herald. I interviewed lots of student athletes, and got to know many, many coaches. I routinely did stories about the hard-knock kid,  whose talent on the football field kept them in school and away from drugs. Is this still happening?

I’m not sure. Back then, high school was the first opportunity for kids to play football. But now, there are 14 bantam (age 13-15) and Pee Wee (age 11-12) teams in Calgary and area that play in a well-organized league with city and provincial championships. There is also a midget program for Grade 9-11 kids to play in outside of the fall high school league.

It’s true, high school programs are more accessible fee-wise than the club programs. Most high school players pay about $300 to play. One midget football program I looked into cost about $600. However, I’m sure there are ways social organizations and kids sports charities could support teams and players through the nine Calgary clubs.

Then there is the cost to the CBE and its schools. We don’t know what proportion of the CBE’s $4.9 million insurance bill covers football-associated liability, but I’m sure there would be a chunk of it.

We also know it takes a lot of coaches. While many are volunteers who aren’t teachers, many are. There are often games where teachers will have to leave school early to make the games. (I know that’s the case with field hockey, track and cross country running.) So there’s missed class time when substitute teachers must be paid from school budgets.

Finally, while fees and fundraising pay for some equipment, I’m sure it’s not all of it. (Hence, the difference in cost between club and school programs.)

When you weigh the risks and the rewards, I say that it probably isn’t worth it. Especially when we know the well-funded and organized club system in Calgary would step in and provide players with a place to play each fall.

I spoke to a former contact of mine, a long time coach and athletic director. I asked should schools still offer football? His comment:

“I really can’t believe we still do.”

So, trustee candidates, what do you say?  Should we still be in the football business as way to support our core business of  learning?

Why I shouldn’t run for CBE Trustee

Yesterday, I penned a blog post about why I should run for the board of trustees. I’m passionate about Public Education and have the skills and leadership to succeed at the role. I could be a valuable ally for parents who want to ensure education dollars are well spent.

But there are all kinds of reasons not to run.

Do I want to join the mean girls club?

Unfortunately, that’s what many have turned to calling the Calgary Board of Education Trustees. From their comical phone call to Metro reporter Jeremy Nolais, to their performance in many publicly broadcast board meetings, its obvious professionalism and tact aren’t job requirements. I’ve heard some awful stories about what happens behind closed doors: personal attacks, slander and ganging up to vent on unpopular trustees.

Just look how the group pushed Trustee Sheila Taylor, who was often critical of the board, to the sidelines and eventually ousted her. Trustees said they weren’t allowed to grant Taylor her requested leave of absence under the school act. However two other trustees in the province had been granted leaves for the same purpose in 2012. Ironically, one was past Alberta School Boards President Jacquie Hansen, the very group the CBE cited as providing the legal opinion that leaves were not allowed. We’ll see what Edmonton Public School Board does with trustee Sarah Hoffman, who is asking for a leave to run provincially.

It’s also clear CBE trustees still don’t make decisions in a public and accountable way.

Taylor’s resignation happened at a public meeting that lasted two minutes,  between 1:43 and 1:45 p.m. on Oct. 3. Any discussion about the School Act, the ability of the board to grant a leave and associated legal opinions took place in an informal meeting before the public meeting, without minutes, motions or public scrutiny. What could be more in the public interest than how voters are represented? How could any trustee think this is good governance to keep these legal opinions and any discussion or debate on this issue private?

I bristle at the thought of sitting in a private meeting, discussing something that I felt clearly was in the public interest. Could I maintain my silence and hold confidentiality? How could I fulfill my pledge to voters to do things differently and be open and transparent if my colleagues continually opted to move in-camera? I can make my objections noted in minutes. However, what difference will that make?

And clearly, that is the biggest reason not to run. I would only be one vote on a board of seven.

While I know I have the skills to make cogent arguments and can be persuasive, I’m not sure that some of these trustees are open to listening.  On all the contentious votes last term, most went 5-2, with only Sheila Taylor and Carol Bazinet dissenting from the majority. This term, many key votes have been 4-3, with Trina Hurdman, Amber Stewart and Taylor voting as a block. It’s a situation that many are very frustrated with. There is simply an inability to make change without that majority of four votes. If elected, I’d replace Taylor’s vote. Still a losing proposition.

I know I could represent parents, voters and my communities very well. I could be an advocate and be public and transparent. However, I probably still couldn’t effect any change. Is it worth it?

Then, there’s the whole issue of the relevance of school boards when all the major decisions, infrastructure, funding, curriculum, are made in Edmonton. That’s for another post.

Why I’m considering running for the vacant CBE trustee position


When I ran for public school board trustee in 2010, I ran on a platform of fiscal restraint and reform, public accountability and meaningful public engagement. I lost a close race, but did publicize many issues at the Calgary Board of Education.

Until my campaign, there had been no public disclosure of the $285 million lease on the new education centre, no criticism of the Board’s fundraising arm Education Matters (that cost more in administration funding than it raised in donations) and little debate about the Board’s excessive private meeting time. I heard many complaints about the way the Board was making decisions, without engaging its key stakeholders, like parents, in any meaningful way, and pledged to improve the process.

Why should I run again?

All of those issues still exist.

While a couple of trustees have worked hard to ensure more detailed budgets are presented to the public, there is still a lack of understanding of the true costs of administration. There is a large gap between the provincial per student grant and what is sent to CBE schools to spend on staff and students. I plan on doing a lot more research on this in the coming weeks to determine just what this gap is.

Public engagement? Well, they haven’t tried to build any windmills without asking the community, but trustees and administration alike still continue to talk to parents, not with them. At the Oct 21 Board meeting, three trustees voted to commend the administration for improving parent involvement. The indicator of success? Page views on the CBE website had increased.

While there are a couple of declared candidates,  who I’m sure are great people and ardent supporters of public education,, I’m not sure any have shown they have the what it takes to turn this board around. The risk we run electing someone without an understanding of the system is the new trustee gets swept along with the majority, who support administration unconditionally and don’t ask any tough questions.

There is a long history of this, going back four superintendents. In 1999, it was administration who encouraged then-Education Minister Lyle Oberg to sack all the CBE Trustees, including now PC MLA Danielle Smith. From that moment, the new board worked in deference to admin. That continued through Chief Superintendent Brendan Croskery, who convinced the Board to go along with the new Education Centre Lease, which has been called the worst real estate deal in Calgary history. We now know the lease was signed by administration, and then approved by trustees 18 months later. I’ve talked to trustees on the board at the time. They were informed about developments, but there wasn’t ever any outs. Administration didn’t ask for checks or oversight, and trustees didn’t demand them. It is a classic case of cart driving the horse, with no escape route and no one watching.  (Every meeting about the Ed Centre happened behind closed doors.) I think this type of thing may be still happening. (I think of the negotiations about the new Sports School.)

Trustees shouldn’t be beholden to administration. You can be a trustee, celebrating the good while speaking out about the bad. Just because you are critical of the CBE, doesn’t mean you don’t support the organization. In many ways, it means you care more about it. I have three children in three CBE schools. I see the best of the organization, and the worst of it every day. I want to see  more of the good things and a lot less of the bad ones.

However, you can’t be an effective trustee that if you think that the problem is solely caused by the province. Some people, including a majority of current trustees feel that if the minister just paid more money and built schools, the CBE wouldn’t have any issues at all.

Watch the last 10 years of budget debates. I’ve either been there or watched most of them. Most trustees ONLY moan and complain about provincial funding levels. They do little to actually look at the numbers, question the benefits of costly expenditures or ask for facts to support administration claims. Most approve as is, with little debate (With notable exceptions – Trina Hurdman and Sheila Taylor, for example.)

I recognize that stable funding is a priority for budgeting. And while I will always advocate for public money for public education, I understand that resources are finite. I’d like to see a trustee candidate pledge, not to ask for more money, but to ensure that ALL money that comes to the CBE is spent in the best way possible, and that scarce education dollars are completely focussed on student learning, not legal opinions or spin doctors.

CBE parents pay some of the highest fees in the province, and in many ways, are provided with a lot less service. It is the biggest board, and given economies of scale, it should be in a much better position than smaller boards. But it isn’t. Can we please elect a trustee who is willing to figure out why.

Tomorrow, I’ll have another blog post. The reasons I shouldn’t run.